IEEE Milestones Program Reaches Quarter-Century Mark

Designed to raise the public’s awareness of great technological achievements, the IEEE program turns 25

5 September 2008
history IEEE’s first Milestone was the atom smasher at Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Co.’s East Pittsburgh research laboratories. A critical subsystem was an electrostatic direct-current generator housed in this tank, shown in a 1945 photo.

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the IEEE Milestone program, designed to raise the public’s awareness of great technological achievements. Since the Westinghouse atom smasher—the first major industrial program in nuclear physics—was named the first IEEE Milestone in 1985 (two years after IEEE began its search for milestones), more than 80 other achievements have been honored. Commemorative bronze plaques displayed at the sites remind us of how different life would be without these accomplishments.

Rarely do we give a second thought to when or where so many of the things we use today were invented or introduced. Take the telephone. Who besides a handful of historians knew that the first long-distance voice transmission, on 10 November 1876, linked Alexander Graham Bell, listening to a receiver in a telegraph office in Paris, Ont., Canada, to a group gathered before a transmitter at another telegraph office in Brantford, 13 kilometers away?

Or the computer. How many people checking their e-mail or watching videos on YouTube know that the first true digital computer was built to help defeat Germany in World War II? The Colossus machine, the world’s first programmable electronic digital computer, went into service in February 1944, at Bletchley Park in Buckinghamshire, England. It allowed British cryptologists to break an entire day’s communication between Berlin and German commanders in the field.

Each of those developments is an IEEE Milestone in Electrical Engineering, and commemorative bronze plaques have been placed at the sites where they first saw the light of day. (In 2000, the Milestones name was changed to Milestones in Electrical Engineering and Computing to more accurately reflect the breadth of IEEE’s fields of interest.)

Still, many noteworthy achievements have yet to be nominated. Where, for example, should plaques be placed to commemorate the first statements of Ohm’s Law (1827) or Maxwell’s equations (circa 1861), or the development of the slide rule (around 1620)? Or how about the cellphone? How many know that Martin Cooper of Motorola placed the first call from a mobile handset on 3 April 1973 while walking in New York City?

NOMINATIONS WANTED Turning an achievement into a Milestone occurs in two stages. It starts with a short proposal that asks and answers the question, “Does this invention stand a chance of becoming a Milestone?” Why waste time gathering information on something that may not be related to IEEE’s fields or where, all kidding aside, there’s no logical place to hang a Milestone plaque? If the Milestones program coordinator gives the go-ahead, members of the chapter, section, or society looking to laud the achievement begin work on the more detailed formal nomination. The nomination process takes about a year, with half the time allotted to gathering material in support of the nomination. The IEEE History Committee spends nearly as much time reviewing the documentation before giving its recommendation to the IEEE Executive Committee, which gives the nomination the final yea or nay.

A Milestone Enhancement Committee was formed this year to put more oomph behind the Milestones program by singling out more achievements. One proposal involves listing the top 30, 100, 300, and 1000 milestones, much like the Forbes magazine list of the world’s richest people, says committee head Emerson Pugh, a Life Fellow. The lists could then be placed on IEEE’s soon-to-be-launched online Global History Network.

Details are yet to be worked out, but individual IEEE members will be able to recommend an achievement for inclusion on one of the lists by briefly describing its merits and listing supporting historical documents. (Milestone proposals, on the other hand, can come only from an IEEE chapter, section, or other organizational unit.) The recommended items would not require History Committee or Executive Committee approval; a separate group of technical historians would decide what makes the lists. IEEE members would then be invited to add to descriptions of the achievements using the history network’s wiki technology.

The History Committee also wants to name more Milestones jointly with other national societies. So far, eight achievements—including the Shinkansen bullet train, the world’s fastest (reaching speeds of up to 210 kilometers per hour) when it began service in 1964 in Nagoya, Japan, and the Stanford Linear Accelerator, which led to the discovery of subatomic particles such as quarks after it was completed in 1962—have received joint designations from IEEE and, respectively, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers and the American Society of Civil Engineers. Joint recognition has the dual benefit of expanding the sources of nominations and giving the milestones broader attention.

The History Center’s Web page shows the locations of IEEE Milestone plaques, along with addresses, maps, and satellite images from Yahoo Maps.

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